| Dec 11, 2012
This year we celebrate the 350th anniversary of The Book of Common Prayer, the principal liturgical resource for the Anglican Communion.
“Why,” you might well ask, “is that significant for Presbyterians and Christians other than our Anglican and Episcopalian friends?”
I believe it is significant because The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) remains, after 350 years of continued use and periodic revision, the finest resource for prayer in the English language.
I shall leave it to others to reflect on the ways in which this book has shaped the English language and enriched Western culture. Oxford professor of Christian history Diarmaid MacCulloch describes the BCP as "one of a handful of texts to have decided the future of a world language,” and I have no reason to doubt Sir Diarmaid. But my interest in The Book of Common Prayer is biblical, theological, liturgical, and devotional.
The Psalms, arranged by morning and evening, equip the Christian heart with the full range of devotional responses to life’s joys and challenges. John Calvin described the Psalms as “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul,” observing that “there is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God” (Calvin, “Author’s Preface” to his Commentary on the Psalms, xxxix). The arrangement of the Psalms provided in the BCP reinforces the use of the Psalms as texts for personal and corporate praise and lament.
The lectionary laid out in the BCP, which takes us through the entire Christian year, from Advent to All Saints Day, provides a rich variety of biblical texts and prayers (collects) appropriate to these texts and to the living of our days. The lectionary, simply in its publication, has the effect of claiming all our days, the year round, for divine purposes. And the collects (the word may refer to both the way in which the prayer “collects” the people for the public worship of God; or for the manner in which it “collects” the occasion and the biblical texts for the day) rank among the most memorable resources for prayer ever written.
For example: “Blessed Lord, who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark learn and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ” (2nd Sunday in Advent). Phrases from these prayers ring through the ages of Christian liturgy and devotion: “O most loving Father, who willest us to give thanks for all things, to dread nothing but the loss of thee, and to cast all our care on thee, who carest for us….” (For Trustfulness); “Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what thou wouldest have us to do, that the Spirit of Wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in thy light we may see light….” (For Guidance); “O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom….” (Morning Prayer, for Peace).
And the worship services themselves that are prescribed in the BCP, including the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer which frame each day with praise, the services for Baptism, Communion, and the Burial of the Dead, demonstrate how all our days are lived in the presence of God. One finds implicit in this book a theology of the immanence of God matched only by a theology of God’s transcendence, reminding us that the closer God comes to us the more holy and wholly other we know God to be.
Originally assembled as a resource for the fledgling Anglican Church in 1549, largely by Thomas Cranmer, then Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII, but based on prayers and services dating at least as far back as the tenth century, and, in at least one case, as far back as the fourth century, The Book of Common Prayer provides an ecumenical guide to the piety of the church unlike any other service book in any other Christian denomination. Not being an Anglican myself, I came to realize only slowly just how vital this resource is. When I first began to use The Book of Common Prayer, it was merely one resource among many others that I mined as a busy pastor drawing together prayers to use in corporate worship.
In time, and especially as a student in Britain, however, I gradually came to appreciate the sanctity and beauty of the service of Evensong, especially as observed in cathedrals such as Durham and in college chapels in Cambridge and Oxford. And in my own college, King’s College at Aberdeen University, though deep in the staunchly Presbyterian territory of Scotland, it was the Eucharistic service of The Book of Common Prayer that guided our worship in our ancient chapel each week.
But it was not until Debbie was diagnosed with and treated for cancer in the summer of 1989 that The Book of Common Prayer became my constant companion.
In those days, I often carried a small pocket edition of the BCP, the English edition published by Eyre and Spottiswoode Limited, Her Majesty’s Printers. It is the traditional edition of 1662 with some of its mid-twentieth century amendments.
For some reason, however, I did not have that edition with me when we were on holiday back in United States when Debbie visited her doctor in Corpus Christi, Texas, for a routine checkup that turned out to be anything but routine. After tests confirmed the doctor’s suspicion, and after the surgeon discovered that the cancer had done far more damage than even the tests had predicted, I sat up through the night by Debbie’s bed reading an American edition of the Book of Common Prayer, allowing it to lead me in prayer.
There was one particular prayer, in the section titled simply, “Family Prayer,” a prayer “For Those We Love,” which I avoided throughout much of that night. There was, you see, one particular phrase in that prayer that put me off. Try as I might, I could not bring myself to pray this prayer because it asked me to entrust those I love to God’s care “for this life and the life to come” in the knowledge that God is doing for them “better things than we can desire or pray for.”
I simply could not let go my own grip on Debbie’s life. I simply could not entrust her life to God if that might mean losing her.
Reading and praying the Psalms that night, from one end to the other, wrestling with God through psalms of lament and psalms of wrath as well as psalms of joy; praying through the prayers set for various days of the year, I kept returning to the section of family prayers unable to pray that prayer that asked the impossible of me. I prayed about Joseph going down into Egypt, where he was imprisoned, and where, during his long imprisonment, as the BCP says, “the iron entered into his soul.” I prayed Psalm 13, “How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord, forever?” and Psalm 22, the Psalm often called the Crucifixion or Passion Psalm, which begins in a frank admission of God’s apparent absence and ends in praise. I prayed the collect of the service of Baptism which begins, “Almighty and immortal God, the aid of all who need…,” and I prayed the prayer “for trustfulness” which reminds us “to give thanks for all things, to dread nothing but the loss of thee, and to cast all our care on thee, who carest for us.”
Through that long summer night, I read and I prayed, and somehow, beyond all comprehension, something happened that allowed me to trust God to love and care for the person I most love, no matter what happened to us next. I don’t know how to describe it, but at some point, calm and peace and comfort flooded into me, and I found myself longing to pray that prayer I had long avoided: “Almighty God, we entrust all who are dear to us to thy never-failing care and love, for this life and the life to come; knowing that thou art doing for them better things than we can desire or pray for; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Somehow that night, I was taught that we cannot love anyone appropriately unless we love them through (and not in competition with) God. The reason today that I love the BCP is because God used it to change my heart toward God. I found in these pages the beauty of the Lord, the truth of the Lord, the goodness of God reflected.
A few days ago I was reading a story in the New York Times amassing yet more evidence that people are turning away from traditional church services, finding them old-fashioned and rigid. The story reminded me of a comment by C.S. Lewis in his classic Screwtape Letters. The experienced demon is advising the younger devil to ensure that the person he is trying to tempt critiques the doctrines of the Christian faith on any other grounds than “truth” or “falsehood.” Make sure, says Screwtape, the old tempter, that the person you are trying to tempt is tempted merely to reject an idea because it is too “academic” or too impractical, “outworn” or “conventional.” “Jargon,” says the devil, “not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous – that it is the philosophy of the future” (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter One).
How does one assess the value of a book that has been around for 350 years? I would argue (and drive the devils mad with my logic) that it is on the basis of whether it is true, beautiful, and good, and whether or not this book leads us to God. And this book can.